Wherever you’re at…there you are

My company is doing a health challenge this month, encouraging its employees to eat five servings of veggies and fruit each day, drink water before every meal, pack a lunch from home or eat a homecooked meal every day, eat only whole grains (instead of refined grains), eat a healthy breakfast every day and eat a serving of vitamin D-rich food daily.

Hmmmm…let’s see how my habits stack up:

  • I eat five servings of fruits and veggies before lunch (about 10-12 in a day).
  • I drink about a gallon of water in a day.
  • I eat a non-homecooked meal about once a week.
  • I eat refined grains about once a month.
  • I eat a healthy breakfast every day (including lots of veggies and fruit).
  • That healthy breakfast includes a vitamin D-rich egg yolk. I also include salmon and tuna in my diet.

Now, my nutritional picture was not always this rosy (I’ll follow up more on that in my next article). And, clearly, the picture is not rosy for many of my coworkers, or this challenge wouldn’t be challenging. And since I’m sure my company is a fair microcosm of North Americans at large, the nutritional picture is not so rosy for most of my continental compatriots, either.

Whatever. While I wish that I had always eaten this healthfully, and I wish that everyone ate this healthfully, wishes are not horses, and I’m not knee deep in…well, you know.

The fact is that each of us eats a certain way, healthy or not. Wherever you are at nutritionally right now is simply where you are at in this moment in time. You can’t change your past, but you can change your future. There’s no point in beating yourself up for junkfood snackfests gone by. What’s done is done. If you want to eat better, you can, starting RIGHT NOW!

At your next eating opportunity, you can make a healthier choice. You can opt for whole grain bread instead of white bread. you can ask for extra veggies on a sandwich. You can chose a side salad instead of French fries. You can snack on an apple and a small handful of nuts instead of chips or a candy bar. You can use a smaller dinner plate and not go back for seconds. You can serve a cooked veggie AND a salad with your meal. You can pack a quick healthy breakfast instead of grabbing a pastry to go with your coffee. There are so many things you can do to start improving your nutrition and your health, you just have to grab the bull by the horns and start!

Just like I don’t want you to get so bogged down in details about the “right” way to exercise that you simply don’t exercise, I don’t want you to get so bogged down in details about the “right” way to eat that you keep on keepin’ on with your old habits.

When it comes to eating healthier, I think people tend to fall into one of three categories:

Beginner. Many/most/all of your meals come from a restaurant (fast food or otherwise), vending machine, mini mart or are otherwise premade and prepackaged (this includes frozen pizzas, frozen “diet” meals, boxed pasta and rice dishes and the prepared foods section of your grocery store). You need to make the transition to real food that comes from real ingredients that you can identify as quick as you can snap your fingers: vegetables, fruit, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, whole grains.

Intermediate. Most of your meals are prepared at home from real food ingredients, and you brown bag your lunch most of the time. But you need to increase the amount of nutrient-rich veggies and fruits and decrease foods low in nutrients. This includes foods high in sugar, even if they are homemade, and it also includes snack foods from Whole Foods or other health food store (just because they are organic, trans-fat free and use sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t mean they are healthy). Eat too much Pirate’s Booty, and you’ll have a big booty.

Advanced. You eat lots o’ veggies and fruit and fill the rest of your plate with foods that are high in nutrition, with occasional indulgences. Now, you’re thinking about playing with ratios of carbohydrates, protein and fats to learn what makes you feel your best and reach your optimal health and body composition goals.

Since I own more cookbooks than anyone I know, and probably anyone you know, I’ll cherrypick a few selections from my voluminous library that I feel apply best to the various paths.

Oh, this is just a mere fraction of the total collection

Beginner
Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Food Revolution. This books proves that it can be simple to put together tasty, nutritious, made from scratch meals. Lots of fruits and veg, and a wide range of dishes, from familiar to exotic, from family-friendly to company-worthy. Advanced eaters will enjoy this book, too, although they may choose to modify some of the recipes (I’ve reduced the fat in some) to meet their nutritional goals.

Real Food Has Curves. Yes, I have talked about this book before. More than once. But it’s a goodie, and if you really need to make a really hard right turn in order to get off the processed food highway, then this book offers more than just recipes. It gives you a roadmap and a pair of friendly guides.

Weight Watchers All-Time Favorites. Whoa…where did this come from? I totally didn’t expect this to be one of my picks, but here it is. The recipes trend toward simple, with short ingredient lists. I have made a handful of recipes from it, and all were ones I would gladly repeat. I can’t remember why I bought it, but I haven’t had it for more than a few years. And I made a coleslaw recipe from it last week (to go with turkey burgers) that I plan to make again on Thursday.

Intermediate
Jonny Bowden’s Healthiest Meals on Earth. Ohhhhh…I love this book. I haven’t pulled it out for a while, but now that I have, I see at least half a dozen recipes that I want to make right now! This book is based on Bowden’s idea of the “polymeal”: meals that include maximum amounts of anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, fiber, good fat, protein, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial plant chemicals that have been shown to improve some aspect of health. All while being delicious and reasonably easy to prepare. To get the most benefit, you’ll make all components of each four-course menu (typically an entree, two veggie-rich sides, and a dessert), but there’s no rule that says you have to, naturally. There’s also a section of one-pot meals with simple sides. This book is not low-fat (Bowden is pro-healthy fats, as am I), but it is free of white flour, white rice and white sugar (yay!).

Nina Simonds’ Spices of Life. Make that a dozen recipes I want to make right now! Sigh. (My cookbooks are like my children, I love each of them for their own special qualities.) This book has health in mind, in the most pleasurable way. Just lots and lots of delicious recipes inspired by cuisines from around the globe. Most are simple, with short ingredient lists.

Ellie Krieger’s The Food You Crave. OK, now we’re getting into territory with slightly longer ingredient lists, but still manageable. This is another book that promotes healthy eating as part of a healthy lifestyle in a way that offers some adventure but will still appeal to most palates. Lots of fresh fruits and veggies, and general yumminess. And nutrition information, if that’s important to you.

Advanced

Tosca Reno’s Eat Clean Cookbook and The Eat-Clean Diet Cookbook. If you’ve read Oxygen magazine, you know who Tosca Reno is. She’s fit, she’s firm, she’s over 50, and she didn’t start turning her diet and life around until age 40 (when she got tired of being frumpy). She’s one of the vocal proponents of the idea that “you can’t outtrain a bad diet.” Eating Clean + regular exercise will help you build a better body.

If you are really looking to improve your body composition and really need help with what to eat, you could look into John Berardi’s Precision Nutrition system or Gourmet Nutrition book or Leigh Peele’s Body by Eats. I don’t actually own these books, but I have seen them recommended enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to buy them if I didn’t already have so many cookbooks at my disposal AND have a pretty firm grasp of how to tweak my diet when I’m in fat-burning mode. Even so, I haven’t ruled out buying them in the future. I just can’t seem to help myself. There are many e-cookbooks available that offer recipes tailored for the body-tailoring set, but I don’t own them and haven’t seen enough recommendations to feel comfortable recommending them to you. Just know that they are out there, and if you frequent the fat-loss or bodybuilding blogs, you’ll hear about them.

Honorable mention

The Bon Appetit Cookbook: Fast Easy Fresh. This is a massive tome that collects recipes from the magazine’s long-running Fast, Easy, Fresh column. As the name says, the recipes are quick and easy (with short ingredient lists) and the ingredients are fresh (aka real food). Not all recipes will appeal to all palates or suit all nutritional goals, but the book is big enough where anyone could find more than enough recipes to please them. Including several turkey burger recipes…one of which will accompany my Weight Watchers coleslaw this week!

Again, just the tiniest snippet of my voluminous collection